The phrase “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” can be one of the most biting, intense phrases ever uttered. At its heart, it means to be so upset by one’s actions or inactions that it doesn’t warrant a degree of passion. It means they have resigned to give up on whomever slighted them, and it becomes easier to just emotionally shut down and turn away, isolating the offender. We humans can take reaction, but to be shunned as if they don’t matter is painful.
Conversely, it can also mean that one has other things to be upset about. As a Disney film enthusiast, I place a lot of my emotions in their movies, but I know there are worse things out there: politics, bills, children in cages, climate change, etc. In the grand scheme of things, a Disney cartoon that fails to meet my expectations is hardly the worst thing ever, even by first world standards.
That being said, Disney’s House of Mouse; I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.
Airing on Disney Channel from 2001 to 2003, House of Mouse had a winning premise: Mickey and friends ran a nightclub: Mickey was the emcee, Minnie ran the detail work, Donald was the greeter, Daisy was the host, Goofy was the head waiter, Max was the valet, Horace Horsecollar ran the sound booth, etc. Pete was the landlord who constantly looked for ways to shut it down. But it was better than that: the patrons were animated Disney characters from Disney’s past. Yes, not just Ariel, Pooh, Cinderella, Maleficent, Dopey, Pocahontas, Dumbo, the Beast, Simba or Alice. They dug deep into the Disney archives and dragged out some of the really obscure ones: Humphrey Bear, Willy the Whale, Paul Bunyan, Mortimer Mouse, Johnny Appleseed, Professor Owl, Gus Goose, Pecos Bill, Ferdinand the Bull, the Horned King, and even…
Yeah. It was extensive.
So why did I dislike it? Well, a couple years prior, Disney had produced new Mickey Mouse cartoons called Mickey Mouse Works, and they basically tried to reboot the gang as perennial stars of eight minute shorts. For television shorts, they were fine, but not much else. But the following show, House of Mouse, set itself as a template to air three of those rerun cartoons for every half hour episode. Not only did this mean that less than half of every episode was dedicated to the plot of the episode, but it was just window dressing to the cartoons. Cartoons that were, at best, of middling quality, when I could be watching Mickey and friends interact with the stars of Disney’s animated canon. It was extremely bittersweet.
Two direct-to-video movies based on the show were made. One themed to Halloween, Mickey’s House of Villains, and this one, themed to the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. So hang high for holiday hijinks here at the Hollywood house!
The plot: After yet another day of entertaining guests at the House on Christmas Eve, Goofy (Bill Farmer) brings some alarming news: no one can go home! A snowstorm has completely barricaded everyone inside, leaving them snowed in. Mickey (Wayne Allwine) decides to host a Christmas party. Everyone is fully on board…except one Donald Duck (Tony Anselmo), who grumbles “humbug!”, as he’s simply not into the Christmas spirit. In hopes of raising Donald’s attitude, Mickey parks him in a recliner and begins playing a series of cartoons and testimonials.
How’s the writing?: House of Mouse had some pretty standard plots: often involving Donald’s broiling jealousy of Mickey, or Pete determined to run them out of business. These were simple plots that were simple to follow, not just because it was a kid’s show, but when they kept flip-flopping back and forth between the cartoons, you didn’t have any trouble keeping up. But they were still plots with conflict. In this special, there is no conflict and the film’s integrity suffers intensely because of it.
Why is Donald not in the Christmas spirit? Sure, Donald is a renowned cranky pants, and his temper has made him an icon, but he seems to be in a bad mood simply to be a contrarian. It’s never said why he’s in a bad mood other than “He gets this way every year”. Now, the kicker is there can’t be a terribly deep reason why, because it’s Donald Duck. Ebenezer Scrooge suffered a multitude of bad events during several Christmases that lead him to hate the season. The Grinch had a heart two sizes too small (In addition hating noise, a loose head, and tight shoes). Donald is a character that shouldn’t have the same kind of emotional baggage as them.
In Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas, in the story Donald’s Gift, Donald just wants to sit at home and have cocoa, but Daisy and the nephews won’t leave him alone, which is a relatable and simple arc. This is the type of story that Donald needed in this movie: maybe he wants to go home and miss being with the nephews and Uncle Scrooge, or maybe he’s burnt out from the modern consumerism and needs to be reminded what Christmas is about…these ideas aren’t particularly deep or unique, but they are genuine conflicts that’d make viewers sympathize and understand Donald. People have reasons for the emotions they feel, even if they aren’t rational. So having Donald just be grouchy for no reason makes this a hard watch.
And in case you’re wondering, (Spoilers), only when Mickey wishes upon a star that Donald would enjoy Christmas, does things change. Mickey lets him put the star on top of the tree, and right away, the duck is overwhelmed with holiday cheer. You see why this bothers me?
Does it give the feels?: Tell you what; I’m going to skip this point. I’ll come back to it, I promise.
Who makes it worth it?: The two main characters in this movie are Mickey and Donald. I’ve already talked about the Duck and his lack of motivation, but he’s at least mostly in character. Mickey, not so much.
You can make the argument that Mickey’s zealous enthusiasm and chipper optimism is grating. It can be, sure, because that’s the core concept of the character. But Mickey is like Superman or Captain America: he may not always have the right answer, but he always does what he thinks is right, and his moral compass leads the way. Once Mickey sees Donald’s attitude, he jumps right into showing the House’s signature cartoons to lift his spirit. Yet he never asks Donald why he’s in a bad mood. I can’t imagine seeing one of my closest friends being grumpy about something and not asking what’s the matter. I do that because once I understand why, maybe I can help fix it, or at least help them look at it from a new point of view. Instead, he’s the acting as the kind of friend who’d rather thrust a beer in your hand as soon as you’re off work instead of helping you work through why you hate your job. And worse, as the plot climaxes, Mickey bemoans that he’s “tried everything” to make Donald happy, which shows he’s more upset about his own failure than Donald’s (lack of) dilemma. Some friend.
Best quality provided: So if this movie’s so vapid and so lazy, why don’t I just throw it in the trash and be done with it? Well, two huge reasons why, and while I despise most things about this movie, these two things almost entirely redeem it.
I mentioned before how the show uses cartoons to fill the air time, and most of them are just okay. But as a bonus, the movie features the 1952 classic Pluto’s Christmas Tree, as well as the much-beloved 1983 featurette Mickey’s Christmas Carol. It’s one of the very best Christmas movies the studio ever made and it comes in at the last third of the movie. I love seeing this short film, and I can’t be truly mad if the directors had the good sense to put this gem in.
The other inclusion comes right after the showing of Mickey’s Christmas Carol, and ends the movie. It’s a song called “The Best Christmas of all”…and it reduces me to tears the first time I listen to it every holiday season. The lyrics are basic and simple. The message is vague and cliché. A lot of details about make no sense if you give any of it more than a passing thought about it. But…holy cow. There’s just something about hearing Lumiere, Belle, Pumbaa, Goofy, Ariel, Timon, Cinderella’s mice, Mickey, Aladdin, Jasmine, Peter Pan and Donald all sing a sweet and unpretentious melody about just how wonderful Christmas is.
Maybe it’s because it makes me think of just how wonderful it would be to be surrounded by all these beloved personalities during one of the best times of the year. Maybe it’s because the song doesn’t try to be a radio hit and just allows itself to simple and sweet. Maybe it’s the visuals of all these characters gathered together. Whatever it is, it is a wonderful song and I can’t recommend it enough.
What could have been improved: Let’s put aside Donald’s lack of conflict and focus on the one thing I always despised about the show: the cartoons that take up more than half the episodes’ runtime. When I first read about this show in a Disney Magazine junket back in 2001, the creators described it as “not bookends, they are part of the show”. Now, I’m sorry, but that just isn’t true. The club part of the show was a framing device, just a very elaborate one. I don’t think I’m alone in saying if I wanted to watch the Mickey Mouse Works shorts, I’d watch those. I wanted to watch House of Mouse because seeing Mickey and pals hang out with Merlin, Genie, Cruella, Peter Pan, Jiminy Cricket, Mushu, and even Herbie the Love Bug and Pepper Ann was potentially a million times more entertaining. Sadly, I think this was a symptom of the show’s core problem: a severely limited budget.
The show must have saved a ton of money by using half its runtime just by rehashing Mouse Works shorts, but it’s even more evident if you’ve seen other episodes of the show. For example, Mickey calls upon Cinderella, Eeyore, the Mad Hatter, and Mushu to share what they’re thankful for, which is ripped straight out of the Thanksgiving episode. A “man on the street” segment where Mickey asks characters like the Beast, Grumpy, Jafar, Ursula, Timon, Pinocchio, Goofy, and even Kuzco what they want for Christmas is from another Christmas episode. Say nothing of the repetitive bumpers of applauding guests that we watch at the beginnings and ends of every cartoon.
I really didn’t care for Donald on Ice, but I felt where things really fell flat was The Nutcracker. I would like a reverent take starring Minnie and Mickey, similar to Christmas Carol, but the version here is decidedly not that. Narrated by John Cleese, the film features all sorts of snarky humor and meta gags (Like how Donald is forced to play the Rat King) and features an electric guitar soundtrack of the classical music, which, I think, does this great music a huge disservice.
Verdict: I didn’t care to have this in my movie collection, but as long as I have Mickey’s Christmas Carol available and I can watch the song “The Best Christmas of All” on YouTube, I’m all set. And it’s just disappointing just how limited this series could get when on paper, it was a wildly amazing concept that could have transcended awesomeness to a whole new level of incredible. That’s why I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. Sure, it’s upsetting to see such squandered opportunities at play, but when all is said and done, I’m glad we have at least what little we do have. As a whole, I’ll give this four shining stars upon the highest bough, with 3 and 1/2 of them going purely to the two shorts and the song.
Happy holidays to all of you, my friends.